warmth in wrap-up

All of the moms of First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville teased me about whether or not I was ready to be a chaperone at Warmth In Winter, and carried on like I was making some great sacrifice by attending.

But I expected going in that I’d have a good time – and I did. It was a blessing, in a very real sense.

It’s a moving thing to see young people in the throes of some of their first religious experiences. Bishop Bill McAlilly, who preached this morning, recalled a church camp experience at which James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” was played, and I had to laugh – because one of the strongest memories of my own junior high church camp experiences has to do with Taylor’s “Shower The People.” “That’s not a church song,” I thought to my seventh grade self. “That’s a song from the radio. Are they allowed to do that?”

That camp experience is still potent in my memory, four decades later, and I always list it as a key part of my spiritual journey whenever I’m asked to lay out my spiritual timeline at some retreat or mission trip training event.

That’s where these kids were this weekend. How remarkable for them to get to go and be at a nice hotel with three thousand of their peers, and see a Christian band play with rock-concert-style staging — video screens, lighting and what have you.

The teens from Shelbyville First are a great group, and they really got out of this experience what you’d hope they would get out of it.

12651260_10153905639804521_7425815808537536630_n

We know that one peak experience doesn’t guarantee a life of faith. Nothing guarantees a life of faith; faith has to be renewed on an hourly basis. In fact, during a breakout session on Saturday I and the other adults from First UMC heard some disheartening statistics about how many children who actively participate in their church youth groups lose their connection to the church just as soon as they get to college.

Bellarive, which was the worship band for this weekend’s event, has a song lyric that goes “You will never fade away / Your love is here to stay,” and while God’s love is faithful we are not always faithful to God.

That’s a challenge and an admonition to all of us in the church, but it does nothing to diminish the value of, or the need for, events like Warmth In Winter, or the week-in, week-out youth activities in a local church. We do not know whose heart might have been turned this weekend. Decades from now, some great Christian leader – maybe a member of the clergy, maybe a layperson whose faith has been reflected in a life well-lived – may look back to that weekend in 2016 when she stood up in front of the stage in the mosh pit, bouncing up and down to the music of Bellarive and swapping warm fuzzies with strangers from other churches.

In case you’ve missed my previous posts, Warmth In Winter, which started in 1982, is an annual youth weekend held by the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Despite the name, the “Tennessee” conference is made up of Middle Tennessee.) It’s been held for the past several years at the Embassy Suites hotel and convention center in Murfreesboro, but it attracts thousands of teenagers and has outgrown even that facility. This year, for example, the Embassy Suites was sold out and there were church groups staying at several other hotels in the Medical Center Parkway area, plus some churches that just commuted. The Saturday morning programming had to be done in shifts – while the groups staying at the Embassy Suites were in breakout workshops, the groups staying off-site were in the main room for worship, and vice versa. Next year, Warmth In Winter will be held at Gaylord Opryland.

My nephew T.J. Carney was a member of one of the “design teams” that put on the event this year, and he appeared on stage a couple of times, in a skit and as a “stick figure dancer” (you had to be there). I could not be prouder. T.J.’s younger brother James also got to attend the event; they are both from Bell Buckle UMC.

So it was tremendously moving to see all the kids enjoying this experience and hope that it will have an impact on them down the road.

But I also enjoyed the programming directly. When you’re talking to teenagers, you don’t talk to them about nuances of theology, or socio-political implications, or textual criticism. Duffy Robbins, the keynote speaker for the event, had a three-point slogan upon which he based all three of his sermons: “God has a plan … Man has a problem … The choice is up to you.” Simple, clean and direct. Every now and then, even we adults need a message that cuts to the essentials and touches the heart.

Duffy Robbins, by the way, was terrific all around, with a sense of humor that appealed to everyone in the room. I found this on YouTube from 2014, but he did exactly the same routine this weekend:

He had a way of taking this simple story and making it come to life. A story about teaching his teenage daughter how to drive became a lesson on the Incarnation, and the need for God to be in the seat next to us. Just perfect.

The other major part of the program was illusionist Jared Hall:

I knew going in that I’d enjoy the program. I had seen enough slide shows from previous Warmth In Winter trips to have a basic sense of what the event was about. But as I posted Friday night, I wasn’t quite sure of my own role. I wasn’t rooming with the kids – that’s prohibited by United Methodist “safe sanctuaries” policies due to the risk. Our church’s director of children and youth, the wonderful Alden Procopio, does a great job with the kids, and so it’s not like I was needed to hand out stern looks. (The kids were great all weekend, really.) This was a suite hotel, and as the only adult male in the First UMC group I had a suite all to myself. I felt almost guilty for being there and enjoying the program.

After I wrote those words Friday night, a couple of things happened Saturday that made me feel better. We had a block of free time, and went to a nearby shopping area with a lot of food options. We gave the kids the freedom to go where they liked. Alden and the Three Moms – Vickie Hull, Tanya Lane and Rachel Cunningham – went with a few of the teens to a barbecue restaurant, but I tagged along with another group that went to Panda Express. Just being there, me and the teens hanging out, made me feel a little more like I was actually a chaperone and not just a tag-along. I sat with most of the same kids that night at the Murfreesboro District pizza party:

12642494_1717541671824735_6520069878194734613_n

I also found out that I had to be there. The event’s policy required that if there were male campers, there had to be a male adult from that church (and, I assume, vice versa). If I hadn’t been there, Grayson and Kenny and Sam might not have been able to be there.

I bought myself a T-shirt on Saturday, but I joked about not buying another souvenir I really wanted. At a layspeaking class I took last November, I was amused at the John Wesley bobblehead doll brought along by the teacher. They had those bobbleheads at the Cokesbury table at Warmth In Winter this weekend, but I decided they were too expensive.

Today, on our way home, we all stopped for lunch at Toot’s South. After we’d eaten, as we were trying to consolidate the plates a bit, all of a sudden the four grownups with whom I was sitting started looking at me and handed me a white paper bag and an envelope.

The bag, as you’ve no-doubt guessed, contained this:

12662651_10208361296779571_988067734179011964_n

The envelope was even better – a card signed by the kids and the other adults thanking me for being there.

By the way, there’s a bad pollen problem inside Toot’s this time of year.

a balm in gilead

Back in the 1980s, while my father was pastor of Bell Buckle, Blankenship and Ransom United Methodist churches, he looked out into his congregation one morning and saw the Murfreesboro District superintendent, William Morris, seated in the pews.

This was an unusual thing. My father was usually assigned to small, multi-point rural charges, and he’d never had a district superintendent drop in on a worship service like that, unannounced. He immediately wondered if something was wrong.

wmorrisNothing was wrong. Bill Morris was just the type of district superintendent who felt it was important to get out into the district and see what was going on in the churches. That really impressed my father. It was around that time, or not long after, that my father decided, on a whim, to invite Rev. Morris to preach at the annual Easter sunrise service at Blankenship. Dad sort of figured that a district superintendent would already be spoken for on Easter Sunday, but he was delighted to find out that Rev. Morris was available and willing to come.

I cannot count the number of times he’s preached Easter sunrise services for my father since that time, wherever Dad happened to be serving. The service would usually be outdoors, and Rev. Morris would usually conclude his sermon by singing something, a cappella, in his deep, rich voice. The song was often “There Is A Balm In Gilead,” a wonderful old hymn. His wife Mary was usually with him.

Rev. Morris went on to be appointed as a bishop – first in Alabama, but then back here in Tennessee. Even as a bishop, he came and preached several sunrise services for Dad.

Rev. Morris, long since retired from the episcopacy, had agreed to come and preach for Dad again this Easter. But he will be singing with a heavenly choir instead. Rev. Morris passed away this morning, at age 79.

For those of you who never had the privilege of meeting Bishop Morris – and I count it a privilege — I found this interview with him on YouTube:

He was a great man, and a credit to the United Methodist Church. I ask your prayers for his family.

an itchy tongue

The other night, I was at Legends with Dad, Mrs. Rachel, and many of her relatives to celebrate her birthday. They had a card on the table advertising some new fish entrees, and I ended up ordering red snapper served on a salad. The restaurant was out of red snapper, so I was offered mahi mahi or cod as a substitute, and I got the mahi mahi. The fish was blackened, and I had a balsamic vinaigrette dressing on the salad.

It was delicious – but I was alarmed when I discovered that my tongue was itchy and bumpy. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to disturb the family gathering, but I had panicky visions of passing out in front of the group.

The symptoms disappeared quickly once I stopped eating the entree, and I was fine by the time we had birthday cake for dessert.

I’m assuming this was some sort of allergy. The mahi mahi seemed like the most likely culprit, but most of what I can find online about fish allergies indicates that you break out in a skin rash, not with an itchy mouth. The only thing I found that seems to describe the symptoms I felt that night was this page about oral allergy syndrome. It says that if you already have allergies – the kind of allergies that give you a stuffy nose – you can sometimes get a tie-in reaction in your mouth when eating certain types of food.

I haven’t been officially diagnosed with respiratory allergies, but in the past couple of years I have sometimes suspected that I have them.  However, the list of trigger foods in that oral allergy syndrome page doesn’t seem to correspond with anything on the salad that I don’t already eat all the time elsewhere.

Now, I’m wondering if there was something either in the vinaigrette or the blackening seasoning for the fish that might have caused the reaction.

my new study bible

I used to have a Wesley Study Bible, in the New Revised Standard Version, and I liked it – it was probably the favorite of the various study Bibles I’d owned up to that point. The Wesley Study Bible has interesting little features scattered throughout pointing out how particular Bible passages relate to Wesleyan theology.

Unfortunately, I lost the Bible. I think I must have misplaced it during a layspeaking assignment somewhere a year or two ago, but I’m not sure. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t realize it was gone right away – part of that was because I’d been listening to the Daily Audio Bible for my daily Bible reading, and I had a smaller, non-study Bible I would often take to church. The DAB is a great program – it costs nothing, and you can listen on your desktop, your phone or tablet, or even on smart TV devices like Roku (look for a podcast app for your smart TV). If you hop on board Jan. 1 it will take you through the Bible in a year’s time. I may take a break from it in 2016, however, if only because I don’t think I’ve been doing it justice and I think maybe forcing myself to read the Bible each day will be a better discipline for me. There are some great Bible reading plans available for download.

By the time I went looking for the study Bible – probably to start writing a sermon for another lay speaking assignment – I couldn’t figure out what had happened to it. It wasn’t in the lost and found at my home church, and so my best guess is that I left it at one of the other churches where I spoke.

I have other study Bibles, and continued to use them, but I missed that Wesley Study Bible. Meanwhile, I had become a fan of a different Bible translation – the Common English Bible.

I’ll digress a second. I suspect most of you understand the difference between translations and paraphrases, but just in case: a translation (like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version) is a Bible version prepared by a team of translators, working from the best and most reliable old manuscripts available, who strive for a high standard of accuracy in the difficult task of translating writings from thousands of years ago into the English of today. A paraphrase (like The Message) is often the work of one person and is designed to be readable, often updating figures of speech, metaphors or expressions by replacing them with close English equivalents.

WP_20151226_19_50_46_Pro (2)Either has its uses – a paraphrase can be great for personal reading and can be dramatic when read aloud in a worship service. But if you’re trying to settle a complex or nuanced theological point, a translation is likely to be more accurate and reliable.

I like the CEB because it is a true translation – prepared by a team of scholars – and yet it has the readability of many of the paraphrase versions. The CEB is also endorsed by the United Methodist Church and is now used in some of the church literature.

I knew that an edition of the Wesley Study Bible was now available using the CEB translation. My father often just gets me clothes for Christmas, and they’re wonderful – I’m lousy at buying clothes for myself. But this year he specifically – and repeatedly – asked me for a wish list. One of the two items I mentioned was a CEB Wesley Study Bible, and sure enough it was under the tree yesterday – with my name inscribed on the cover.

I want to take good care of it, so I braved the after-Christmas crowd at Walmart this morning to buy a Bible cover. I’ve put contact information in a little window inside the Bible cover in case I try to leave this Bible somewhere, and I’ll write my name inside the Bible too (since the Bible cover hides hides my name on the front of the actual Bible).

Happily, I’ll have this Bible to use from the pulpit in another week when I preach Jan. 3 at First UMC in Shelbyville. Often, I just copy and paste the Bible passage into the manuscript of my sermon and read it from the printout. I’ve been told at lay speaking classes not to do that, though – it helps to give reverence to the Bible reading if the congregation actually sees you holding and reading from the Bible.

philleo

In the 30 years I’ve been at the Times-Gazette (I mark I passed, without fanfare, last July) I have had seven editors: Chris Shofner, Mark McGee, Kay Rose, Rene Capley, John Philleo, Kent Flanagan and currently Sadie Fowler. I am heartbroken to have lost three of them in 2015 – Chris, Kent, and now Philleo (which is all we ever called him at the T-G), who passed away this weekend.

John was a good man, a caring man, who encouraged us and challenged us to do better. He loved to put out a good newspaper, as much as anyone I’ve ever known. He had his own private struggles, and was honest about them starting with the very first staff meeting we had with him, but he had a big heart.

I remember a conversation while he was driving me the mile from the newspaper to my apartment – I’d had car trouble, or something – just a day or two after he’d been hired. I had served as interim editor for six months prior to his hiring, didn’t get the job, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t feel any resentment towards him. It was a short conversation but it said volumes about who he was and why he was such a joy to work with.

santa denied

This was not my day to show Christmas cheer.

This was to have been my last time to see the kids at Learning Way prior to the holiday break, and I wore my Santa hat for the occasion. But when I got to Regan’s class and saw a substitute teacher, I was saddened to hear that Regan had a death in the family. Rather than burden the sub with trying to figure out what to do with me, I just turned around and headed back to the newspaper.

Then, earlier today, a former co-worker from my brief sojourn in Lewisburg earlier this year – she’s now a college student out west – was on Facebook looking for a last-minute co-consipirator to help her deliver a holiday/birthday surprise to her father, who works in Shelbyville. I was looking forward to it, and put my shoes on ready to head out the door, but then she looked at the logistics and decided her plan wouldn’t work. and so my services weren’t needed.

So, bah humbug.

in the spirit of the season

The past three Christmases, I’ve recorded holiday recitations and sent out links to them by e-mail as “audio Christmas cards.” I meant to do another one this year but so far inspiration has not yet hit. There’s still time. But I thought that in the meantime, I’d post the still-active links from those first three readings. Merry Christmas.

call waiting

Ever since my father became a United Methodist minister, people have asked me if I planned to follow in his footsteps. I’ve never felt that call. I do, in fact, love to write and preach sermons – maybe for some of the wrong reasons. I have been a United Methodist layspeaker since the 1990s, filling in for ordained ministers when they go on vacation, get sick, or what have you. The past few years, I had been averaging up to one speaking assignment a month, but this year has been slow, for no particular reason. It’s just that way. A couple of people who used to call on me regularly are now in different situations.

But being a pastor is a lot more than preaching, or even preparing sermons. A lot more. As a PK, I’ve seen that firsthand. And I don’t think I’m suited for some of the tasks that are part and parcel of that job. Now, it’s true that God sometimes qualifies the called instead of calling the qualified. God sometimes brings out strengths or abilities that the simple shepherd boy from Bethlehem or the Galilean fishermen didn’t know they possessed. But I just don’t feel called to that particular job.

There’s something of an irony, then, that I’m now part of the process for people who do feel that call. Last summer, I joined the District Committee on Ordained Ministry, or “D-COM,” for the Murfreesboro District of the United Methodist Church. There are various types of pastoral ministry within the United Methodist Church – although not everyone achieves, or intends to achieve, the final destination as an ordained elder. But there’s a process you go through to get to each of these various steps. And at various points on the journey, you go before D-COM, which makes recommendations about whether you should proceed.

When I was first called last spring and asked to serve on D-COM, I wasn’t really familiar with it and thought they had called me by mistake, meaning to call my father. But D-COM has both ordained clergy and laypeople as members. I am a layperson member.

My first D-COM meeting was last summer. I had to miss the next meeting due to work responsibilities, so tonight was my second chance to actually attend. At last summer’s meeting, we were interviewing candidates who were very early in the process – the only decision we had to make was whether or not to allow them to go to an exploratory retreat where they would discuss God’s call on their lives.

Tonight’s meeting was with candidates who were further along in the process. Naturally, I can’t discuss any of the specifics, which are confidential. We divided up into two teams, and each team conducted interviews separately.

The thing that struck me tonight was that each of the three candidates I heard from humbled me in some way. Each of them had some quality to that person’s life or ministry that made me think, “Gee, I wish I had more of that.”

And I have to admit, even though I haven’t heard that particular call I find myself a little envious of them for having a call. They didn’t necessarily all know exactly what form of ministry they were being called to, but they were in the pipeline, trying to respond to God’s call, moving forward.

I wish I had as clear a vision of where God wants me or what God wants me doing.

out of the mouths of babes

It was a long and crazy day, full of unexpected twists and turns.

It began with my normal volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary School. This week, I was to help several different groups of second-graders walk through a booklet on what life was like in colonial times.

The first group was well-behaved, paid close attention, and we had a lovely little discussion springing from some of the things they’d noticed in the book.

The second and third groups? Well, not so much. We had a little bit of a behavior problem, to the extent that with the last group, I did something I try never to do:

“Do you want me to have to call Ms. Aymett over here?”

I can’t remember which group – it may have been the second – but one of the kids said to me, “Mr. Carney, do you know you have a really big belly button?”

Let me clarify here that my torso was fully covered throughout my visit to Learning Way this morning. What the child was seeing, and reacting to, was a bulge visible under my pullover. I do, in fact, have a walnut-sized belly button. It’s called an umbilical hernia. A few years ago, when I had a membership to Shelbyville Recreation Center, I overdid it on some weight machine or other and a small portion of my intestines pushed itself through my abdominal wall. It’s harmless; it can be corrected by surgery, if I were ever in a position to do that, but it’s no real problem except from an aesthetic standpoint, unlike the turn-your-head-and-cough sort of hernia.

Anyway, I and my Really Big Belly Button got out of the hour more or less unscathed. I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to hold the kids’ attention, but Ms. Aymett – as always – took it in stride.

Maybe I should write a children’s book: “The Really Big Belly Button.”

I bet that one they would pay attention to.